Lajawaab Lucknow

Lucknow is a beautiful city.

That’s what my friends from Lucknow would always say. For many years, I experienced Lucknow and its famed culture through their eyes and stories about their city. I improved my spoken Hindi (or Hindustani as they preferred to call it) by speaking the language with them, and over the years came to speak the language like a native of Lucknow. At least that’s what my friends would say. But I never managed a visit a visit to Lucknow in all these years. Till last month, that is. 🙂

When I got off the overnight train that brought me to Lucknow from Varanasi at 7.00 am that October morning, I didn’t feel like I was in a strange place. Instead, I felt like I was in a familiar place, with the stunning red and white Char Bagh station welcoming me like an old, old friend.

Lucknow’s red and white Char Bagh Station glows in the soft morning light

Since I had only one day in Lucknow, I packed in as much as I could by playing tourist and visiting some of its more famous sights. My tour of Lucknow began with the auto ride itself from Char Bagh station to my hosts’ (parents of my friends, Ambika and Anuja) place. The auto driver enthusiastically pointed out the important landmarks like the Sankatmochan Temple, the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha, Parivartan Chowk, Hazratganj, Lucknow University… on our way to my hosts’ place. My first impression of Lucknow was that of a city without multi-storied buildings, wide roads, lots of greenery, beautiful houses, and orderly traffic, though my opinion on the last one changed during the course of the day !

I had made prior arrangements for a vehicle and a guide to “see” Lucknow, and we had pre-decided on a list of 6 must visit places to see. The first on that list was the Asafi Imambara, or the Bada Imambara. This is a Shia shrine complex that includes a mosque, a baoli (step-well), and a bhul bhulaiya (labyrinth).

Entrance to the Bada Imambara

The Bada Imambara was built in 1783, a year of famine and ruin in the region. The ruling Nawab at that time, Asaf-ud-Daula, hit upon the idea of building the Imambara as a means of providing employment to his people. The famine continued for 10 years and the building also took that long to be built.

The Bada Imambara
Main Hall of the Imambara

Asaf-ud-Daula is buried in the main hall of the Bada Imambara, a hall with many remarkable features. The main hall is a large vaulted central chamber, over a 100 feet long and nearly 50 ft high and has no beams to support the ceiling. It is difficult to put into words the feeling of being in a vast, enclosed, yet unhindered, space stretching out in front of you. The Bada Imambara is considered to be among the largest such arched constructions in the world.

One of the passages in the Bhul bhulaiya

The upper floors of the Imambara contain an intricate 3-D labyrinth of interconnecting passages, balconies, and reportedly 489 doorways. The location of the bhul bhulaiya inside the Imambara came as a surprise for me. I had expected the labyrinth to be a fun thing, like a garden and not within a building. The guide mentioned that the labyrinth was not planned; it was the unintentional outcome of a way to support the weight of the building, which was constructed on marshy land. Probably the only existing maze in India, the bhul bhulaiya in the Bada Imambara is the main attraction for most tourists coming here. I saw many tourists rushing up to see the labyrinth, without even giving a cursory glance to the grand interiors of the Imambara.

The roof of the Bada Imambara offers some great views of the city and one can see many other landmarks of Lucknow from there — Rumi Darwaza, the Safed Masjid, Ghantaghar, and the dome of Chhota Imambara. The view of the Asafi mosque, which is located within the Bada Imambara complex, from the rooftop is stunning.

View of the Asafi Mosque from the roof of the Imambara
Baoli or step-well

The baoli in the Imambara complex was built over a reservoir to initially store water for construction work. Later a guest-house was constructed over the baoli  to house the Nawab’s visitors. The baoli also served as a place for surveillance, where soldiers, located in the lower recesses of the baoli would keep a track of the comings and goings of visitors from their reflections on the waters of the well. The baoli is so cunningly designed that the visitors would not know that they were being watched.

Rumi Darwaza

After the visit to the Bada Imambara, it was a short drive through the spectacular Rumi Darwaza to see the Hussainabad Imambara, which is popularly known as the Chhota Imambara. The 60 ft tall Rumi Darwaza is also known as the Turkish Gate as it has been modelled on the Bab-i-Humayun in Istanbul.

It was through this gate that the victorious British troops entered Lucknow city after successfully breaking the Siege of Lucknow in 1857 arising from India’s first war of independence.

The Chhota Imambara can be described in just one word — gorgeous. Built in 1838 by Nawab Mohammad Ali Shah, this Imambara looks like it is spun of white lace, and capped with a golden bronze dome and several turrets and minarets. This lacy effect is due to the extensive calligraphy on the outer walls of the Chhota Imambara. Compared to the Bada Imambara, the Chhota Imambara is more ornate in design and has its interiors filled with exquisite chandeliers from Belgium, large gilt-edged mirrors, and a silver minbar, among others. The Chhota Imambara complex has a shahi hamam or a royal bath, a mosque, and tombs of Nawab Mohammad Ali Shah and his family members.

The Hussainabad or Chhota Imambara
The ornate interiors of the Chhota Imambara. Note the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling

The Residency is the next on my list of places to visit. My recollection of the place from school history lessons did not prepare me for what I saw — ruins, upon ruins of red brick structures, a graveyard tucked away in one corner of the grounds, extensive green lawns and trees, and desolation. Desolation everywhere, and couples hiding in every possible place, including tombstones.

The Residency is a group of buildings that was built in 1800 by the then Nawab of Awadh, Saadat Ali Khan, for the British Resident General, who was the British Empire’s representative in the court of the Nawab. The buildings comprised living quarters, kitchens, stables, a mosque, a church, granary, etc. The Residency came under siege in 1857 during India’s first war of independence or if one is looking at the incident from the British point of view, the Sepoy Mutiny or Seige of Lucknow or the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

But whosoever’s point of view, Indian or British, the fact remains that there was a bitter battle during the Siege: about 2,000 Britishers died (including soldiers and their families). The Siege was successfully overcome by the British, and India had to wait for another 90 years for Independence. The Siege left the Residency in ruins and one can still see scars made by cannons on the walls today.

A panoramic view of the Lucknow Residency
One of the ruins in the Residency

A small museum within the Residency records the history of the Seige of Lucknow as well as photographs of the various Nawabs of Lucknow. A quick visit there and I am off to see the graveyard. A board outside mentions that the “enormous number of casualties during the siege forced the bodies to be dumped into the ground near the church after the nightfall often with no burial service other than a brief prayer.”

A walk through the graves reveals graves of women, children and babies even. It is a chilling reminder that whatever the reasons for violence, the innocent are also affected. Always affected. Though it is a warm October day, l feel a chill in the cemetery. A quick prayer at what was supposed to be St. Mary’s Church, and I leave.

The Dilkusha Palace is the next place I head to. Situated on the banks of the river Gomti, this was developed as a hunting lodge around 1800 by Saadat Ali Khan and the then British resident, George Ouseley. Later on, this place was also used as a summer resort. Built in the English Baroque style, it is completely in ruins today with only the pediment, columns and some walls standing today as a reminder of a glorious past. Set in very picturesque surroundings, I was surprised to find that I was the only tourist there. The guide remarked that it was not a very popular place, though the evenings saw locals coming for a stroll. Sometimes, cultural programmes were held in the premises, which  brought in crowds. It wasn’t too difficult to imagine the dramatic red ruins all lit up and serving as a perfect backdrop for theatre or even a dance or music performance.

The ruins of the English Baroque styled Dilkusha Palace

Out next, and last, halt is the La Martiniere School for Boys. Normally, the school is not open for visitors, but since it was a Sunday one could at least see the school building. The school interiors, however, remained out-of-bounds. The La Martiniere School was founded by a French adventurer, Claude Martin, in 1845. The school is set in a 200-acre campus on the banks of the river Gomti. Praveen, the guide, has figured out that I love architecture and announces rather smugly that I am in for a treat. I didn’t understand what he meant till I actually saw the school.

The school building has been built in a mixture of architectural styles and can, therefore, not be classified under any one style. You name the style, the school has it all — Moorish, Baroque, Classical, Gothic, Georgian, Greek, Mughal… It took me a while to recover from this bizarre and eccentric mixture of styles. The interiors were also supposed to contain design elements and styles from all over. Unfortunately, I could not see it. 😦

The front entrance to the La Martiniere School for Boys
One of the School’s wings
A statue of a rather bewildered looking lion on the roof of the school building along with other rather whimsical statues

After the “thank you” and “goodbye” to my guide, I returned to my hosts’ place at around  4 pm. A late lunch and a nap later, I was all set to experience Lucknow again, but this time with my gracious hosts. It wasn’t touristy stuff, just normal stuff—some shopping for chikan at a very nice place called Nazrana in the Hazratganj area, followed by a visit to their family friend’s place to bless a new-born baby and have some divine laddoos, and then a drive around Lucknow in the evening. Dinner was at a club in the Cantonment area and over kababs and some more kababs, we chatted, discussed and gossiped about Lucknow and its famed adakari and nazaakat. My host even demonstrated how one should swear in true Lucknawi style !

It was a super contented me who went to bed that night, happy that I had finally visited Lucknow after nearly 23 years of only hearing about it. When I spoke to Ambika that night, she was disappointed that I had not visited the old city or had Lucknawi chaat.

I replied, “If I do everything in one trip, what will be the incentive for me to come back to Lucknow again?” ;-).

36 thoughts on “Lajawaab Lucknow

    1. Thanks, Anu. Lucknow was magical and there was only so much I could do in one day. It definitely deserves multiple visits–one to explore the arts and crafts of the place, another to enjoy the food, the third to explore the place all over again… Sigh 🙂

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    1. Welcome here, Megha, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I am so glad that you appreciated this post on Lucknow. I didn’t savour much of th food to be able to write about it. That’s what my next visit to Lucknow will be all about, isn’t it? 😀

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  1. As a Lucknow resident, I can tell you that this is a SUPERB post. Your writing style is so easy, yet so detail oriented and the selection (and shooting) of pictures is so awesome… or maybe that is just my Love for Lucknow speaking… enjoyed every word of it… sharing with my friends now 🙂

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    1. Welcome here, Rohit, and thank you so much stopping by and commenting. Thank you also for sharing it with your friends. If a Lucknow resident like you feels that I have captured the essence of the city, then that is high praise indeed for me. I really liked Lucknow and for me it was the stories of my friends coming to life finally.

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  2. Very nice article mam. Being living in Lucknow since childhood. Somehow, the city has a charm which compels all to have a special place in their heart for it. Perfect blend of the vintage and the modern.

    Nice clicks. Been to these places with friends and family. Your captures do justice to them. 🙂

    Alas ! you could not see all in such a short visit, but I assure you that “Lucknawi Chaat” won’t disappoint you next time. (Yeah Delhi people , it is better than you have got in Delhi)

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    1. Welcome here, Abhay, and so nice of you to stop by and comment. I liked Lucknow very much and therefore, enjoyed writing about it too. And, I will be visiting Lucknow again to have the chaat, to roam the gullies of the old city, to see the city again. I will surely be back 🙂

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    1. Thankss, Maitreyee. Lucknow is a beautiful city all right, but it also has an unhurried pace that worked for me. And its history and architecture is quite a quite a draw as well. Not to mention the food 🙂

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  3. The Pics are truly stunning and the write up makes one want to go and see them all. For all your protestations that you are not a travel writer, you ARE. I would never be able to remember so much of a place or be competent enough to comment on the architectural styles. More power to your feet and your fingers on the keyboard 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Zephyr.

      I never said that I am not a travel writer, I said that I found travel writing tedious; it doesn’t come easy to me. 🙂 I love architecture, as for some reason I see musical patterns there in the symmetry or assymetry. And since music is a passion it is easy to connect.

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  4. I was waiting for your Lucknow post. It turned out to be surprisingly detailed and lively. I loved all the photographs, especially the wing of La Marts’ Boys school. I can appreciate the efforts you appear to have taken to compose the photographs.

    You seem to have skipped Behenji’s works though.

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    1. Thanks, Umashankar. I really liked Lucknow as I found it to be quite different from other cities ans particularly in the lack of high rises. I was in Lucknow for just a day and with the little time that I had I preferred to see what I did. As for Behenji’s works, i did see them in passing and can always see them in detail when I visit Lucknow once again. And, yes, I will be visiting Lucknow again 🙂

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  5. The Chota Imambara is my pick. The interiors are exquisite. Lucknow seems to be home to architectural wonder… must go visit sometime. Beautifully captured essence, as always Sudha. 🙂

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    1. The Chhota Imambara is my pick too. I love architecture, as you have probably figured out by now, and Lucknow was a special treat. All the structures made of brick, in fact a special brick called Lakhori and it was a fascinating to see non-stone buildings.

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  6. Hi Sudhagee… thanks for dropping into my travel blog!
    I must say your photo compositions are enchanting… are you pro in this? 🙂
    and about Araku… you must go there by train… the journey will be memorable…
    and another thing… our blogs share the same Mark Twain quote!
    cheers…………

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    1. Thanks for your lovely comments, Anunoy. And no I’m not a pro, far from it. I have a point and click camera (admittedly a good one), thanks to which the results are there for all to see. I also do not use any photo editing software, apart from using the contrast feature in Picasa.

      I will definitely travel by train, as I love train travel. And will hopefully be able to write about it as well.

      The Mark Twain quote is quite something isn’t it? Great minds think alike 😉

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